Slovenia's Sticna Abbey is famous for its illuminated manuscripts, with more than 70 created by professional scribes between 1175 - 1181. With such an illustrious history, the monastery seemed a fitting place to try my hand at caligraphy.
I was under the tutelage of not a monk but Tadej Trnovšek, curator of the Slovene Museum of Christianity now located at the Abbey. And while Tadej seemed to have the patience of a saint, he had no way of knowing that his pupil's penmanship was so notoriously bad that the U.S. postal service routinely returned my mail, unable to decipher to whom it was addressed.
“You dont need to press so hard, you can just allow it to glide,” he said earnestly, upon seeing a huge black blob of ink emerge from my quill pen. I smiled to myself, thinking of my penchant for trying to make things happen through sheer force of my will, rather than allowing life to gently unfold.
I had come to Sticna with my guide Mateja Kregar Gliha and earlier, she and Tadej had given me a fascinating lesson in the monastery's history.
In its heyday, there were at least 12 writers and 10 illuminators at Sticna. The scriptorium was led by a monk named Bernard, who had come to Slovenia from France in 1175.
"We only know three writers by name," Tadej said. " Bernard was regarded as both the best writer and illuminator at the Monastery. There was also Nikolaj—we assume by his name he could be a local Slovenian monk. The third was named Engilbert --from his writing style, its believed he was a German from Cologne. Engilbert was the fastest scribe, able to write 45,000 characters in a day--the equivilent of 25 typed pages!"
The Scriptorium was beside the only room that was heated. Monks were allowed to enter once a day to warm their hands.
The monks only wrote during the day--the oft-depicted image of a monk laboring by candlelight is a myth, as the danger of fire was too much of a hazard to allow it.
We slowly walked along the the hallways of the cloister, the arches and ceilings of which were beautifully painted. Artist Janez Ljubljanski, known as John of Ljubljana, created some of the monastery's gothic frescoes. He was the most famous Slovenian Gothic painter of the mid-15th century.
Turning a corner, Tadej said, "This was known as the 'reading corridor.' Here, the monks would sit on wooden benches and listen to one of their brethren read or sing from the monastery's manuscripts."
Almost half of the Abbey's manuscripts are still preserved today, with 21 of them housed in National and Universary Library in Ljubljana and the others in Austria.
The columns along one of the hallways in the cloister feature the images of faces, with men’s faces on one side and women’s faces on the other side. Tadej said the facial sculptures were made in the 13th century and were most probably noblemen and donors to the monastery who were buried in the cloister.
In a corner of that corridor, a depiction of a harpy—a creature that is half-bird, half-woman--was painted in the 12th or 13th century. When the monastery was built, no decorations were allowed, as they would disturb the minds of the monks. Tadej wryly observed that the idea of an image from Greek mythology being on the walls of the monastery would have had its founder, St. Bernard, turning over in his grave.
Tadej explained that women were not allowed inside Slovenia’s monasteries until the late 1970′s, as they were considered a distraction for the monks.
“It is said that in the 1970′s, Tito’s wife Jovanka wanted to visit a monastery of Carthusian monks in the town of Pleterje and of course even the monks could not say ‘no’ to Tito,” Tadej said with a smile. "After Jovanka had left the monastery, the monks spent a solid week thoroughly cleaning to rid the monastery of the scent of a woman."
Tadej said that in the Middle Ages the Carthusian monks spent time every day shoveling their graves, as a reminder of the impermanence of life on earth and not to get too attached to material things.
And yet it was the wealth of nobleman Pongrac Turjaški that earned his gravestone a place of honor on the wall at Sticna Monastery. His tombstone dates from 1493 and is the oldest preserved gravestone in the monastery. The family was so important to the abbott that they even had a private chapel of St. George in the church. In 1980's archaeologists found 15 skeletons of this family buried in a common grave in the chapel.
In fact, Sticna was one Slovenia's richest monasteries--it had more than 300 churches in the 16th-17th centuries. The abbot was a feudal lord and owned more than 1,500 farms from 1135 - 1784; during this era, families living and farming on the monastery's land paid taxes to the abbot.
"When monks came to the area, they were the only literate ones," Mateja said. "Their arrival into this remote rural area was a big deal. Young kids learned from the monks and so it was the beginning of education, and the belief that education was good."
The monastery was a place of physical refuge for local people as well as a spiritual sanctuary. The Turks invaded the area three times--in 1471, 1526, and 1529.
"There was a strategy behind the Turks not destroying structures when they invaded--what they didnt destroy, they could return and invade again," Tadej said. "After the first attack on the Monastery, what is known as the "Turkish Wall" was built in 1505, which is up to five meters high and up to two meters wide."
"Monks at that time had a lot of weapons with which they defended the monastery during the Turkish attacks," Mateja explained. "The local women and children would flee into the safety of the church, which is dedicated to St. Mary, Sorrowful Mother of God."
"Like the ladies and children hiding in the church, no matter what happens, we should bring our burdens to God," said Mateja. "Jesus is waiting for us in Heaven, but Mary gives us the hope to deal with everyday life. She was a human and she got to Heaven."
“Generally in Slovenia I think we are not grateful enough," she added. "Usually we go to church and we pray to God, Jesus, St Mary, and the Saints when we are in trouble. But when we are grateful, we should pray to thank them!"
Mateja and I said our good-byes to Tadej and as we drove back toward the capital of Ljubljana, I expressed curiosity to Mateja about the strong faith I had seen in evidence in Slovenia. I confessed that it seemed at odds with my admittedly American perception of the country’s religious freedom under rule by a Socialist dictator for almost 30 years.
"In the Socialist period, the monstery was very closed off and not connected with the community," she said. "Tito's brand of Socialism allowed the monasteries to continue and people were able to go to church. But to be a manager or a director at a company, you had to be member of the Communist party and you could not be a member if you went to church."
I had detected an air of nostalgia among some Slovenians for life under Tito and asked Mateja about it.
"Under Socialism, everyone had work for 35 years, people were able to build their own homes," she said. "There was social security, no one needed to worry about a pension. That was the world we knew before Capitalism. Now we have to think for ourselves, we have to take care of ourselves. Human beings are lazy by nature, as long as we are not hungry. Capitalism is tough."
"When I look back, I am thankful I lived in Yugoslavia," she said. "Tito's Communism was different than the most-known Russian one. Everybody had a passport and could go all around the world, if they had enough money. Borders on the western part of Slovenia were actually the most open borders between East and West."
"Since there was not much a selection of goods in Yugoslavia we went to shop in Italy or Austria," she continued. "We were not allowed to bring a lot, just items for personal use and the control on the border was strict, but we were all the time up-dated with the life in the West--what people wore, what they ate, what was popular. I am glad we do not need to do that any more."